It's the year of the licensed video game.
Half a decade after "Batman: Arkham Asylum" thwacked our low expectations for Caped Crusader games, Telltale's "The Walking Dead" has distilled the heat of making life-or-death decisions into interactive form. "South Park: The Stick of Truth" decidedly didn't suck. And "Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor" was more orc-slaughtering fun than Legolas ever had.
Now comes "Alien: Isolation."
Since its emergence, Creative Assembly's first-person survival horror campaign has been hyped as possibly the first great game set in the barely hospitable world of xenomorphs and facehuggers Ridley Scott first committed to film in 1979. At the very least, it's looked better than 2013's catastrophically bad shooter "Colonial Marines."
That's in no small part because the veteran British studio takes more inspiration from Scott's movie — its boxy, off-white spacecraft decks, its oppressive dread — than the one "Colonial Marines" and several others patterned themselves after: James Cameron's blockbuster sequel "Aliens."
No, "Isolation" doesn't want to thrill you. It wants to terrify you.
Narratively, the game bridges those first two "Alien" films. As Amanda Ripley, you're stranded on the derelict Sevastopol in search of her mother, Sigourney Weaver's Ellen, following the events of "Alien."
Creative Assembly's masterful art and sound design brings the space station alive with atmosphere. It's a maze of dim walkways and consoles lit by exposed wires, jerry-rigged bulbs, amber rays from nearby Gas Giant KG348 and not a lot else. Its silence is broken only rarely by scattered beeps and distant, metallic thuds.
Operationally, however, the Sevastopol is quite dead. Among the few remaining occupants are scared humans with hair-triggers, super-strong androids whose Crash Test Dummy eyes turn orange with bloodlust when you cross them — and one xenomorph that's everywhere.
Open a door, and it's there. Walk under a ceiling grate, and it's there. In absolute silence and stillness, simply turn around — and it's there.
If the xenomorph sees you, the best outcome is repelling it with a burst of your flamethrower or one of several gizmos the resourceful Amanda can craft in real time. Maybe you can hide in a locker or a knee-high cabinet until it goes away. Much of the time you make contact, though, the snarling, 7-foot killing machine will impale you with its tail or size you up with its silver chompers before your fight-or-flight response even registers a verdict.
That's the backbone of "Isolation." Under constant threat from the alien, Amanda has to sneak and wit her way off the Sevastopol, saving what little ammo and materials she can scavenge for only the most unavoidable confrontations. It's a game possessed with grim futurism, a game relentless in its tension — a game just like "Alien."
Indeed, Creative Assembly has conceived in "Isolation" the first great "Alien" game. Like "Arkham," like "South Park," it bottles the essence of its source material and serves it up in uniquely faithful form.
Gulping it down, however, is the problem with "Isolation."
Describing the xenomorph in "Alien," the android Ash would also unwittingly sum up this game: "Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility."
Well, OK, "Isolation" isn't structurally perfect. At about 18 hours, it's far too long, particularly in the more action-heavy second half. The alien's AI is that of a creature evolution should have vanquished eons ago — sometimes it won't see you standing feet away. And voice actress Andrea Deck, as Amanda, alternates wildly between boredom and sincere, contagious fright.
The point remains: "Isolation" most certainly is hostile. Get caught sneaking and humans can kill you with a couple of gunshots — androids, with a chokehold or two. As for the alien, you'll die in its claws so frequently it becomes a kind of black comedy not long after you're first caged with it three hours into the game. But where those failures would teach you how to succeed in other games — even those that rule the survival horror genre — "Isolation" just finds another way to win.
Sure, you can try. You can cautiously approach the room where the xenomorph was waiting last time, only for it to spring out of the vent above the doorway this time. You can scorch it with a flamethrower seconds before hacking a door so the beast doesn't catch you off-guard like last time, only for it to return way sooner this time. You can learn the answer, only for it to ask a different question.
Aggravating this game of reverse whack-a-mole is "Isolation's" manual save system. The sooner you learn to save any time you hear its signature beep, the more repetition you'll spare yourself. By the end of the game, I was trekking well out of my way on the Sevastopol to save before especially lethal moments.
Ready for it or not, this dispiriting succession of random, instant demise prompts you to wonder whether "Alien: Isolation" would work better with, say, "second chance" quick-time events that allow you to fight off the xenomorph once per life, or a more empowering stealth interface than the movies' signature motion tracker.
Addressing these more genetic problems, however, would turn "Isolation" into another organism entirely.
A proper "Alien" game should be volatile as the beast itself, caustic as its innards. Indeed, it felt blasphemous when, late in the game, I could rely on all the weaponry I'd collected to blow away whatever threats remained. This is a world where I should be hopelessly outmatched and outgunned, only able to scrape by with a one-in-a-hundred windfall of luck and guts.
But is that worth suffering 99 sudden, unmusical deaths?
In a medium that puts such a high premium on adaptability — not to mention fun — "Isolation" has made me question just how classic a game "Alien" is capable of birthing. It can drip with atmosphere, it can scare the pants off you, it can star a female protagonist as badass as her namesake. But, as great a nail-biter as Creative Assembly has made, its most backhanded triumph may be proving that no "Alien" game can ever be Ash's "perfect organism."